Israel-Palestine Confederation: Pie in the Sky

Dernière mise à jour : 25 août 2021

By David Cohen*


This is an updated English version of the French article on the subject posted on May 29, 2021 in my blog. This new version was published on June 15, 2021 by Canadian Friends for Peace Now (https://www.peacenowcanada.org/newsletter/israel-palestine-confederation-pie-in-the-sky/)


In recent years, a number of analysts have proposed an Israel-Palestine confederation as the best option for peace. The idea has gained traction because of a growing sense that a two-state solution is in jeopardy or no longer feasible due to the difficulty of removing tens of thousands of settlers deep inside the West Bank. The confederal model is also seen as a way to keep hope for a peace accord alive.


But the concept is utopian.


Usually created by a treaty, a confederation is a union of sovereign states, loosely united for limited but critical purposes of common action by member states. Decisions are made by central bodies — either a confederal legislature composed of state legislators that represent their respective country and/or a council of member state representatives that makes the final decisions on shared issues, usually unanimously.


“One Homeland Two States” proposal


There has been a decade-long debate on the Israel-Palestine confederal model “One Homeland Two States” proposed by Israeli journalist Meron Rapoport and Palestinian activist Awni Al-Mashni. The model provides for two separate, independent states, but with freedom of movement granting the citizens of Israel and Palestine the right to reside anywhere within the two states. Israeli settlers willing to remain in Palestine, and Palestinians willing to reside in Israel would be subject to their country of residence’s law. All citizens would vote nationally in the state of their citizenship, but not of their residency, as in the European Union. The model assumes joint institutions to manage common issues such as defense, security, Jerusalem, the economic union and the environment. Its implementation would be carried out in stages.


This proposal would offer the advantages of accepting both national narratives on religious and historical claims to historical Palestine. It would allow Palestinians the right of return to Israel, while Jewish settlements could remain where they are, along with free access by Israeli Jews to holy sites in the West Bank and Jerusalem.


Former Israeli negotiator to the Oslo accords, Yossi Beilin, has proposed an interim agreement followed in the longer term by such a confederation. Others, including Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, have proposed variants of the above proposal.


Palestinian negotiators Hussein Agha and Ahmad Khalidi suggested “soft sovereignty,” with trilateral border security arrangements for the West Bank between Jordan, Israel and Palestine, and for Gaza between Egypt, Israel and Palestine.


Not a new concept


For more than half a century, all plans for an Israel-Palestine confederation or federation have failed. Following the rejection of the 1947 UN proposal for a confederal economic union by the Arab representatives, the UN concluded that “any effective economic, political or territorial unity in Palestine proved impractical.” In 1972, Jordan proposed a Jordan-Palestine federation with Palestine being autonomous as opposed to sovereign, but Palestinians, Arab states and Israel rejected it. Former Israeli foreign affairs minister Shimon Peres proposed a Jordan-Palestine confederation complemented by a Jordanian-Palestinian-Israeli customs union, but nothing came out of it. During the Trump era, Palestinian Authority (PA), President Mahmoud Abbas, was ready to accept a Palestine-Jordan confederation if Israel was part of it and Palestine became sovereign first. Jordan rejected the idea.


Obstacles


The confederation idea faces numerous obstacles.


One of these is a deep-seated unwillingness of both parties to work and live together. There is strong anti-Arab sentiment among Israeli Jews, especially among the religious, and staggering anti-Semitic attitudes among Palestinians in the Territories.


A recent extensive Rand study of alternatives highlighted the “deep distrust and profound animosity of each side for the other.” “Separation” between Israelis and Palestinians was the most important factor in determining the acceptability of alternatives. The confederation alternative was widely rejected as “unfeasible” and as creating “negative security implications” by allowing Palestinians free movement in Israel. Among Israeli Jews, the status quo was the preferred option, perceived as risk-free. Recent polling and a 2020 Israel Policy Forum study supported those conclusions.


Other critics of the confederal idea point to the refusal on the part of many Israeli Jews to refrain from dominating Palestinians and consider them as equal partners. Critics also emphasize the clash of value systems between the two peoples regarding democracy, ethnicity and attitudes towards sexuality, such as gender-based violence and treatment of the LGBT community.


Another key obstacle is the governance structure itself. Historical evidence indicates that confederations tend to be short-lived, especially the two-state variety, because each state holds a veto which tends to create gridlock. No two-state democratic confederations exist today. In the recent past, there has been only one, the Union of Serbia and Montenegro, which survived for only three years. Nordic Cooperation is one of the rare confederal unions of several democratic states which has survived for several decades, mainly because of the sharing of shared values and concerns.


The confederation option is unworkable. But a two-state solution is also not likely in the foreseeable future. Despite persistent international support for this solution, it has become moribund following two intifadas and three failed attempts to strike a realistic peace accord in 2000, 2008 and 2014.


What can be done in the meantime?


Some form of cooperation has been going on for years between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Arab states. This includes Israel’s bilateral security arrangements with the PA, Jordan and Egypt, and multilateral cooperation on energy with the PA, Jordan and Egypt, and on water with the PA and Jordan.


While waiting for a final settlement and despite the PA’s rejection of normalisation with Israel, it is possible to gradually build up areas of cooperation in government and civil society whenever common and pressing challenges emerge. Both societies could aim at multi-state inter-governmental agreements involving Jordan and Egypt because of historical trust with those states. Multi-state cooperation could be extended and deepened to areas such as border defense, environment and energy, and civil emergency issues such as pandemics, fires and humanitarian aid. This could be extended to the Gulf countries to counter the Iranian threat.


The settlements question


Never before have the U.S. Democratic Party and Administration given such overt commitment to the principle of defending human rights both domestically and outside the country. Representing the Biden Administration, Joey Hood, Acting Assistant Secretary of State, spelled out at an Israel Policy Forum a set of U.S principles “to make sure Israelis and Palestinians alike have equal measures of freedom, dignity, security, prosperity and democracy”. If Biden is successful in applying the principles of freedom, dignity and democracy in the Territories, settlement expansion could be contained somewhat. However, the new Israeli government is expected to resist such a move. It is unclear how much real weight the Biden administration will give to those principles, which have been kept below the radar until now.


An Israel-Palestine confederation is definitely not viable because it would face near unsurmountable obstacles for a long time. The recent mob violence in mixed Israeli cities, which has weakened the frail bonds between Israeli Jews and Arabs and heightened the sense of national unity between Palestinian Arabs of Israel and Palestinians from the Territories, make a confederation scenario even less probable.


*David Cohen is a frequent commentator on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Quebec French media. He has a French-language blog (www.daviddcohen.ca) and is a board member of CFPN. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect CFPN positions.

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